Vladimir Putin backs the rebels suspected of shooting down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. Why each new crisis makes him stronger
The scene was almost too horrible to take in, and yet in a world of bristling threats no scene has been more revealing: under the baking July sun of eastern Ukraine, hundreds of bodies lay rotting as pro-Russian militiamen, some of them apparently drunk, brandished their weapons to keep European observers away. A Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 bearing 298 souls–AIDS researchers, young lovers, eager children–had been blown out of the sky, apparently by a Russian-made missile, and the dead fell in a gruesome storm. One voice, and one voice only, could put an end to this indecent standoff over the innocent victims. But Vladimir Putin merely shrugged and pointed a finger at the Ukrainian government and, by extension, its Western allies. “Without a doubt,” Putin told a meeting of his economic aides on the night of the disaster, “the state over whose territory this happened bears the responsibility for this frightful tragedy.”
Had Putin finally gone too far? As the days passed and the stench rose, the coldly calculating Russian President got his answer: apparently not. While state-controlled media at home buried Russia’s role in the disaster under an avalanche of anti-Western propaganda, leaders in Europe and the U.S. found themselves stymied once again by Putin’s brazenness. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, whose nation lost 193 citizens in the attack (one of them a U.S.-passport holder) called pitifully on Putin to do “what is expected of him” in helping recover the bodies. U.S. President Barack Obama struck a similar tone on July 21 after the victims’ remains had been packed into refrigerated train cars out of reach of foreign investigators: “Given its direct influence over the separatists, Russia and President Putin in particular has direct responsibility to compel them to cooperate with the investigation. That is the least that they can do.”
That was the crisis in a nutshell: the least Putin could do was the most Obama could ask for. The American President announced no deadlines, drew no red lines and made no threats. Even as U.S. intelligence sources asserted with growing confidence that Russian weapons and Russian allies were behind the missile attack, U.S. diplomats were met with roadblocks as they tried to rally Europe to stiffen sanctions against Putin. Obama and Rutte spoke as leaders without leverage, for their voters aren’t interested in military conflict with Russia or its puppets. A generation of Westerners has grown up in the happy belief that the Cold War ended long ago and peace is Europe’s fated future. They are slow to rally to the chore of once again containing Russia’s ambitions.